A Page Out of the Neoliberal Playbook: Defunding Public Schools

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The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis is seeking to change the Minnesota constitution so that instead of establishing a uniform system of public schools, it “guarantees a quality public education.” 

On the surface, the Page Amendment seems like an improvement. However, the new language strips away the mandate for the state to fund public schools. The amendment would cause litigation against the state for schools with failing test scores, and the outcome would be a voucher system to move students into charter schools. The prospect of charter vouchers is the primary reason many supporters want the change. Public schools would be closed or privatized, and as our public institutions are stripped away, organized labor would be dismantled alongside it – one reason why the amendment is being opposed by Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teachers’ union. There’s no doubt that something needs to be done to close the achievement gap, but privatizing education rather than addressing other factors in childhood education will only deepen the divide. 

An example of the destruction wrought by privatized education can be found in Louisiana. The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis cites Louisiana as a state that successfully made a change to their constitution that is similar to the Page Amendment. Their decision to use Louisiana as a success story is a bold choice given that it’s a textbook example of neoliberals leveraging disaster to put public goods on the free market; in fact, the introduction to Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” is about the privatization of New Orleans’ public schools after Hurricane Katrina. Subjecting education to market forces has had catastrophic consequences for many schools and the students who attend them. Reports lauding New Orleans as a success routinely disregard how Katrina changed the demographics of the region; it’s likely that test scores went up because people in poverty were displaced and funding for education increased. Meanwhile, organized labor for education within Louisiana, which used to fight for funding and students’ rights, has been stomped out completely. The conversion to charter schools in New Orleans included the school board firing all 7,500 of its unionized employees — many of whom were Black.

A question not being addressed in public discourse is why the Minneapolis Fed Bank is being allowed to take such an explicitly political, anti-labor stance. A cursory reading of the Federal Reserve Act would suggest that this type of intense lobbying for their own controversial political proposal is outside of their scope. As of this writing, there are 94 results on their site when searching “constitutional amendment” as a phrase. Politicians and journalists both seem afraid to take on arguably the most powerful regulatory body in the world and call them out for this overstep. The Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank acting in this way is a clear conflict of interest, regardless of what mandate they use to justify it.

A person needs to look no further than Neel Kashkari to understand the force driving the Minneapolis Fed Bank. Neel Kashkari is a Republican politician who made headlines during his 2014 gubernatorial run in California, when he spent a week cosplaying as a homeless person. From that experience, in a WSJ op-ed, Kashkari concluded that a focus on education (i.e. charter schools) and reducing business regulations (i.e. unions) was the key to ending poverty in California. During his run for governor, Kashkari attacked “bad apple” teachers as primary drivers of racial inequity in education in a scathing op-ed. Kashkari also proposed a new funding structure for education that would have been similar to a charter system; it would’ve opened the door for the state to offload schools onto the private sector similar to New Orleans. All this suggests he’s running the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank as a failed Republican politician instead of as a servant to the public.

To further lobby for the Page Amendment, an astroturf organization called Our Children has been created. The organization appears to be a sock puppet for the Minneapolis Federal Bank; for example, as of writing this, the first four accounts Our Children’s Twitter followed were Minneapolis Federal Bank employees. In keeping with the trend of self-described “grassroots” orgs, which are astroturfed to push a neoliberal agenda, their web domain is currently registered to someone in Utah. One of the organization’s founders is another failed Republican politician named Mike McFadden; he was the GOP nominee for US Senate in Minnesota in 2014. McFadden ran on the promise of defunding public school districts and reallocating the money to charters. He currently serves on Cristo Rey Jesuit High School’s board of directors; Christo Rey is an exclusive religious charter school with a tuition of $2,400 per year.

Mixed in with the failed GOP politicians lobbying for the Page Amendment is Attorney General Keith Ellison. His involvement in this is enigmatic at first glance, especially because he received Education Minnesota’s endorsement during his 2018 campaign for attorney general. He is using this amendment as a conversation starter about the achievement gap. For his complete perspective, watch this video where he’s a keynote speaker for the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank’s event on education. Ellison may be gambling that, as attorney general, he can steer the litigation on this to improve education outcomes while still defending the public school system.  But even if he is successful, he won’t be attorney general forever. If the Page Amendment passes, at some point in the future, Minnesota will become the next New Orleans. Despite the facade of bipartisan support from Ellison and a handful of DFL legislators, the reality is that this amendment will eventually channel money away from public sector schools and their students.

Prior to becoming a statewide ballot referendum, the amendment must be voted on by the state legislature. For whatever bipartisan support the amendment has garnered in the state legislature, it has an even larger bipartisan opposition — but that could change as the Minneapolis Federal Bank continues lobbying efforts. To assure a legislative vote, the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank is making cynical, bad faith arguments through the lens of identity politics, going so far as to exploit the murder of George Floyd as reason to pass this amendment. Supporters of the amendment will try to label their critics as racist or claim they are in opposition to equal education; the fight will be extremely ugly. Currently the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank is waiting for the pandemic to subside before it pushes the amendment to a legislative vote, but a vote is likely to occur in 2021.

If you are interested in joining Twin Cities DSA members fighting for justice in education, join us on Slack and ask in the #labor channel.

– Anonymous

Authors’ opinions may not reflect those of the TCDSA.

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